I recently returned from Long Beach, Calif., where I attended the annual convention of my rabbinical association.
What a wonderful infusion of energy to be among more than 500 rabbis participating in worship, study and discussion of current issues and opportunities for Judaism and other religions in the world. I suppose it is like this for most clergy, who return from these kinds of gatherings with new ideas, as well as concerns about the future trends for our faith traditions.
The theme of the convention was "Rabbis Leading the Shift: Jewish Possibility in a Rapidly Changing World." The lesson: If we are going to stay relevant to those we serve, we better get with the technology. The conference focused on connectivity and technology issues because the theory is -- and this applies to any house of worship -- if temples are up-to-date on the best use of technology, they will then be effective in reaching the unaffiliated and keeping contact with populations of young ones, also known as the"nones generation."
We listened to the vice president for global affairs at Facebook, a mid- to late- 30-something, declare how Facebook was practically saving the world and bringing peace to the Middle East. Of course, the next day I read in The New York Times that about 60 percent of Facebook users take sabbaticals from checking their updates, and millions more simply leave their accounts inactive. The reason is that people are bored with Facebook, which is why the social media company was coming out with a new screen presentation. Bored fans do not make happy advertisers.
Maybe their messianic expectations are a little bit overblown?
That is the problem today with the culture of technology. The devices are so cool. I have an iPad, iPhone, laptop and lots of apps. Are they not supposed to help us with connectivity, make us more productive and, therefore, more effective in reaching the unaffiliated or caring for those in our congregations?
Our houses of worship have websites and Facebook pages. The question is, does anyone in the congregation know how to use them so that they build community? Secondly, does social media truly add to or substitute for the one-to-one contact that is critical in building a religious community? Does the array of social media choices truly enhance the message of the religion or does technology end up taking over the message of the religion?
I admit I have bought into this world -- to a degree. At the convention they had a technology bar where computer-savvy clergy sat and helped those wandering in the technological universe with any questions regarding the use of our tech gadgets. Rest assured, they knew me well by the end of the week. I picked up a few tricks and apps that hopefully will enhance my knowledge, making me only a few years behind the curve now.
But there is one more thing I see: Despite all the unquestionable blessings of computer technology and social media, we risk losing a part of our memory from the time before computers and the Internet existed -- before all the gizmos that we wear almost like jewelry and take to bed with us as if they were companions. Have we become so busy "making connections" that we've forgotten the voice of our Scripture and those teachers who led us into modernity who might not survive as we download our existence into the digital age?
This would be a tragic loss.
I am afraid that if we become so completely futuristically oriented our past will disappear through digital blips on a screen. I am afraid the Internet will either give us Scripture without community or community without Scripture. I do not want to lose the texture of human eye contact -- which not even the Facetime or Skype can match -- that has sustained the message and religious communities since ancient times.
If we are so consumed with following technology's yellow brick road at all costs, what will happen when we get to the city of Oz?
We may or may not like what we find.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.